Foreigners in Johannesburg struggle under pandemic regulations

Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown have had a devastating impact on many business owners and employees. Included in this scenario are foreign nationals and undocumented people who have had to try to pick themselves up in usually packed commercial trade areas such as Fordsburg and China Mall, experiencing low recovery .

The ability to easily find parking on the usually packed and busy streets of Fordsburg on a Saturday where road rage, traffic and double parking were a staple no more, was already a tell-tale sign of the devastating effect the covid-19 pandemic has had on businesses and their employees. 

Many were forced to shut their doors for over three months, with no source of income, after the hard lockdown was implemented in South Africa on March 27. This resulted in more than three million jobs being lost between February and April, and over 1.5 million people who had jobs but no pay, according to a Nids-Cram survey of 7 000 people. Some were able to keep their businesses and jobs, but are still far from full recovery.

Fordsburg, a hub for foreign-owned businesses and migrant workers, started off as a place where locals and foreigners would sell goods in the open Fordsburg Square flea market. This created an affordable marketplace for selling a variety of items such as fruits and vegetables, Indian and Pakistani spices, replica clothing items and pirated DVDs.  

The opportunities for foreigners grew with the influx of shoppers looking for affordable haircuts, groceries, food stalls and established restaurants. The conflicting aromas of the different restaurants were soon overtaken by the scent of curries and chicken tikkathe sweet smell of hubbly bubbly flavours, and incense as Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Egyptian nationals saw the growth of the commercial trade in the area. This allowed foreigners to generate sufficient revenue to open shops, and created a sense of community and a piece of their home countries as they drew on their common nationalities.  

South Africa in general has been an economic magnet for many migrants searching for better job opportunities, but a true indication of the numbers is hard to quantify. It is estimated by the African Centre for Migration and Society that there were two million international migrants of working age (15-64) in South Africa in 2017, representing 5.3% of the country’s labour force. The International Organisation for Immigration’s (IOM’s2020 World Migration report estimates that this number is as high as 4.2 million as of 2019, accounting for 7.2% of the population.

A couple scorned by lockdown woes 

With the lockdown, however, Fordsburg has struggled to regain its allure. On the now desolate Park Drive stands a beauty parlour that was forced to close its doors for three months due to its “non-essential” status. Only those that provided food, medicine, banking services, healthcare, fuel, internet and municipal services could remain open.  

The parlour owner, Samim Patel, does threading, waxing, facials and cuts hair. But upon entering her shop, now overflowing with her one-year-old’s toys, she was found sitting in anticipation, for just one customer to walk in. Looking out at the empty streets, a slow reminiscent smile spread over her face as she said, “Before the lockdown, we never even had the time to eat. I even remember those days when I used to have a biscuit and water and carry on working, because there was no time to eat.”   

I don’t really get customers anymore. Sometimes I get R20 and sometimes nothing at all

Her shop of seven years, which used to open from 8am to 8pm, now with the lack of foot traffic sometimes opens at 10am and closes at 3pm.  

Regardless of many businesses opening their doors again, the fear of contracting covid-19 has overpowered the desire to seek grooming. Samim’s smile quickly vanished as she brought herself back to the present, “I don’t really get customers anymore. Sometimes I get R20 and sometimes nothing at all. I had regular customers for 10, 12 years. They’ll phone or message and ask how am I, how’s the baby, but they don’t want to come because they’re scared of covid.” 

Sameer Patel, her husband, felt the full brunt of the lockdown as his one-year-old business venture went up in smoke. He had to completely close down his newly established curtain shops in Ormonde and Boksburg. The word “tension” was uttered frequently, and his face crumpled when asked about his shops. Both he and his wife struggled with sleeping and eating because of the stress over the future of their businesses.  

“It’s a terrible feeling. I can’t sleep,” he said as his face turned red, sweat streamed down his forehead and his fists clenched. 

Terrified that her shop could close too, and with the burden of owing thousands in accumulating rent, Samim said, “Some of the nights I couldn’t even sleep. I didn’t know what was going to happen. There’s food on the table, but you can’t eat because you’re stressing. Until today, days are like that.” 

Sameer was reluctant to speak about the loss, but the little he did say caused water to well up in the bottom of his eyesFighting to hold back his tears as they threatened to fall, he said, “I don’t want to talk about it because it’s really stressing me. I was opening a big business and bought a truck for it, but it didn’t work just because of the lockdown. I sold all the things under cost, so it’s actually costing me more than R500 000.” His employees were paid with whatever he had left, and went back to previous work. 

The lockdown affected the economy immensely as South Africa’s GDP contracted by 51% in quarter two. The government, to minimise the impact of covid-19, offered relief to businesses in the form of the Debt Relief Fund and the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF). A special covid-19 social relief of distress grant of R350 a month was also set up for those that lost employment.  

The Debt Relief Fund was aimed at small businesses that experienced financial difficulties during the lockdown. The requirements, however, automatically excluded this group as businesses had to be 100% owned by South African citizens, at least 70% of the employees had to be South African nationals and they had to be tax-compliant and registered with SARS. Sameer and Samim, armed with only work permits, were not eligible for this fund. 

The many hoops to jump through

Many shops located in one of Fordsburg’s main attractionsthe Oriental Plaza, saw the same fate as the lockdown took the familiar overcrowding of shoppers away. Built in the 1970s as a shopping centre for Indian traders, because of its low prices it became a haven for bargain hunters where finding space to even walk, was difficult. Bursting with a multitude of shops, the Plaza sells curtains, kitchenware, colourful fabrics and traditional Indian clothes. 

Opposite the now strangely deserted parking lot of the Plaza stands a small barber shop, which can house only three customers at a time. Outside the barber shop sits 46-year-old Indian national Imtiyaz Shaik, with his single employee standing in the doorway with the same look of anticipation and desperation as Samim. 

Malawian national, Etoo Kuiuwangu, learnt how to make all types of Indian cuisine when he came to South Africa in 2014 in the hopes that he could build his repertoire of skills and always be employable. He prepares the different curries, biryanis, butter chicken and mixes and rolls out the roti dough at Sheth’s Chinal Mall restaurant. Photo: Zainab Patel.

The lockdown led to a 26% increase in food insecurity and hunger, due to income shocks and job losses. The Nids-Cram survey found that 47% of respondents reported that their households ran out of money to buy food in April 2020.  

Shaik has three children, and worry occupied his days as he experienced difficulty buying groceries, paying school fees and the uncertainty that still surrounds his barber shop. But with the help of his friends and clients bringing him groceries during that time, he was able to get by. 

The UIF provided funds to registered companies unable to pay their employees. This meant that foreign nationals who were not legally documented or legally employed were not eligible to receive this. As of October 27, R1.6 billion has been paid to declared foreign nationals, but there are still delays, with them receiving their payments much later than their South African counterparts. The reasoning provided by the UIF was that its system uses ID numbers and does not recognise passport numbers, as well as extra verification processes required for foreign nationals. 

Instructions on how to apply for government relief, and the rules pertaining to who could receive it, caused confusion among some foreign nationals. Shaik explained, “The government announced that they want to help, but actually we don’t know the process and rules of going to government for help. They said they were going to give you a link to go through. But I try, I try, how many times I try to get through the link, but I can’t get it right.” 


No work no pay

The China Mall in Crown Mines, like the Plaza, is perfectly designed for foreigners as it allows shop owners to conduct business under the radar with many who do not pay tax. Bordered by large containers of goods, China Mall is famous for its cheap products ranging from clothes and bridal wear to toys, homeware and electronics. It is also where traders come to buy in bulk, with the cheap wholesale prices. 

China Mall has been largely affected by the pandemic due to the stigma surrounding the mall and Chinese nationals. Finding parking was abnormally easy when visiting this bargain-filled mall, which has now seen an influx of PPE and infrared thermometers occupying several shops. Many shops that it previously housed are non-existent due to the loss of customers and the high rentals, ranging from R20 000 to R90 000, depending on size. This is due to the intense competition in the mall and the high volumes of passing trade, where whoever offers to pay more rent gets the space. 

Located west of the mall is a food court owned mainly by foreign nationals and which shut down in February, before the lockdown, because of that stigma. One of the businesses was Anish Sheth’s fast food restaurant, which left him and his employees without a salary for four months. This is because he pays his employees on a per day basis, as most of his employees are undocumented and therefore do not want to be on the employees register. This automatically excludes them from the UIF, Debt Relief Fund and R350 grant.   

UN DESA estimates there are 100 000 Malawian and 376 668 Mozambican migrant workers in South Africa, driven by the prospect of better jobs and escaping the poverty of their home countriesEtoo Kuiuwangu, an undocumented Malawian national, and Malemu Baleaa, an undocumented Mozambican national, work for Sheth making all types of Indian food in an aroma-filled, tiny corner next to the main kitchen of the restaurant. 

It’s very difficult, because when you don’t have any money it’s fucked up

Mozambican national, Malemu Baleaa, starts the fire to make the naan (flatbread) for the day. He works non-stop for nine hours from Monday to Sunday making rotis, chicken tikka, parathas and naan in this tiny green corner where him and Kuiuwangu prepare the food at the restaurant. Photo: Zainab Patel

Kuiuwanga spoke of receiving no money during this time. “It’s very difficult, because when you don’t have any money it’s fucked up. There’s not even supper, sometimes.” He had to lend from people to try and look after his wife and two-year-old son.  

Baleaa, who has been working there for 13 years, expressed the same, with having to look after three children. “During the lockdown I took credit from someone. Now I’m working so I can pay them. It’s a little bit better now, but it’s not yet 100%.” 

I just came to work because I don’t have any choice. I’m going to do what? Nothing

The financial impact of those months of complete shutdown, according to Sheth, resulted in a loss of approximately R800 000. “Now, as a business, it’s not like before because people are still scared to come to the restaurant, especially China Mall.” He explained that they are not making their turnover, which was previously about R300 000 a month. With an average loss of R100 000, their turnover now ranges from R180 000 to R190 000. 

Given their undocumented status, Kuiuwanga was stoic about his non-payment during that time, but displayed a tinge of anger when speaking about it. “I’m working here for five years, but I never get anything. So when he [Sheth] opened in May, I just came to work because I don’t have any choice. I’m going to do what? Nothing.” He is using the money that he is making now to slowly pay back the loan he took out

Some business owners, like Samim and Shaik, await the new year in hopes that it will return to normal, using what little income they make nowSheth extended his restaurant hours from nine hours to 12. “Recovery is nothing. Still we are struggling and battling with reversing all of that [the financial impact of the lockdown].”  

Others, like Sameer, have sought employment elsewhere. He went from owning his own curtain shops to working isomeone else’s curtain shop: “You have to do anything, anyhow, because if you have a family you can’t just sit with your hands, you have to do something to get food for your family and everything else.” 


Life or school – a mother’s choice

The instability brought about by the covid-19 pandemic has in significant ways compromised the schooling career and academic progress of children with special education needs. 

THE SHOW GOES ON: With most learners back in the classroom, both children and teachers are forced to adapt to the covid-19 rules. Photo: Akhona Matshoba

The documents pinned neatly to a maroon notice board on the wall behind her form a backdrop that indicates this school principal runs an orderly ship.  

Even though our interaction is on a virtual platform and I have only a headshot view of Ansonette KraucampI can tell she is fond of her job.  This is evident in the way her eyes light up when she gets excited about a question. Her smile accentuates the wrinkles that have formed around the corners of her eyes. Her passion for her work shows in the way she brushes back her pixiecut hair when she is frustrated. 

Kraucamp became the principal at Casa do Sol, a special education needs (SEN) school in Randburg, a suburb north of Johannesburgin April 2020, just weeks after the lockdown due to covid-18 was imposed in South AfricaWith a wry smile, she refers to herself as a ‘corona baby’’ because of her ill-timed commencement of the position. The school caters to children between the ages of six and 21 years old who have intellectual impairments. 

The new normal

In October, more than two months since the last national school closures took place, and with South African schools back in session, Kraucamp boasts about how well she believes her learners are adapting to their new normal’’: “They are superstars,” she says. She proudly shows me a small sanitiser bottle attached securely to a lanyard slung around her neck.  This bottle, she says, is given to all the senior learners at her school who understand what sanitiser is and how it is to be used.  

The return to school in August was, however, not without its challenges. Kraucamp notes that there are some children, especially those with autism, who are still struggling to adjust. She says some kids are having trouble with wearing a mask. She refers to one of her learners, whom she calls “little Thapelo”, who cannot wear a mask for long periods. She also speaks about another learner who wants to wear only surgical masks and not cloth ones. She says although understanding what each child is comfortable with involves a lot of “trial and error”, operations at the school continue. 

CAPTAIN OF THE SHIP: Despite the chaos caused by the covid-19 pandemic, the newly appointed principal aims to lead the school with love and compassion. Photo: Akhona Matshoba.

According to Kraucamp, most of her learners have returned to school and only about 19 out of almost 200 remain at home, because they have life-threatening comorbidities. Their parents have to decide between possibly risking their children’s lives by sending them to school to receive a proper education, or keeping them at home, where they are safe. Choosing the latter means some parents may have to sacrifice their children’s academic progress. One parent faced with this decision is Ronelle Kelly (50) who is Joshua Kelly’s mother. Joshua (17) is a grade nine learner at Casa do Sol who has Down’s syndrome and chronic asthma. 

The principal says although learners such as Joshua remain at home, they can still join virtual classes. “Some of the kids [with] comorbidities or lockdown learning will be part of the class via MS teams,” Kraucamp says. 

Joshua’s mother says, however, that because she has returned to work, her son misses out on such classes because he is unable to log onto platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom on his own. Instead, she collects her son’s school work from the school every second week. The school work comes in the form of thin, ringbinder books with laminated pages. Inside them are activities like practising the days of the week, reading and comprehension and also mathematics exercises. 

On a warm day nearly two months after schools reopened, Joshua and his mother are seated opposite me in the living room of their home in Albertskroon, a suburb of RandburgRonelle Kelly has long black and gold braids that drape over her shoulders and down her back. She looks tired. I can tell from the redness and the bags beneath her eyes that she does not get much sleep. Joshua, who is seated next to his mother, is twiddling his thumbs and seems uninterested in our conversation. He is dressed in blue sweatpants and a t-shirt that hides a thin gold chain. The chain makes an occasional sparkling appearance whenever he looks up.  

“I will never ever tell a parent, you have to bring your child [to school], because if something happens to that child, what then?”

Fearful that her son could contract the coronavirus, Kelly decided to keep him out of school for the remainder of the 2020 academic year. She took this decision in June after South African schools reopened after the first school closure which lasted for almost three months.  Joshua’s mother takes on a stern tone when she tells me, “I tell you, if something happens to my son, that’s the only time you’ll see me lose my head.” Her fear for her son’s life is almost palpable.

Kraucamp says although schools are now considered safe, it is not her place to tell parents what decisions they should take regarding the health of their children. “I will never ever tell a parent, you have to bring your child [to school], because if something happens to that child, what then?”she says.  

The long-lasting effects of covid-19

Speaking to Wits Vuvuzela, Dr Hester Costa, the director of inclusion and special schools at the Gauteng Department of Education, says there are about 1 000 learners who have not returned to SEN schools this year because of severe health conditions. This is even after the second national school closure, which lasted a few weeks. According to the most recent data, has 47 918 children with special education needs enrolled at 149 special schools. Gauteng has 47 918 children with special education needs enrolled at 149 special schools.  

Experts say prolonged disruptions of the academic programme will result in negative impacts on children with learning disabilities. This is because consistency and routine are an essential part of learning for children with special education needs. 

Kelly says she tries to keep her son academically stimulated. Joshua, with the aid of their helper, Chichila Sylvia Seshibe (43), does some school work every day. She notes, however, that because they do not know what they are doing half the time, Joshua is forgetting a lot of the content he learned at school before the lockdown.  

LEARNING ON THE JOB: Parents of learners who continue to learn from home have been forced to improvise and learn how to teach their children. Photo: Akhona Matshoba

After letting out a nervous laugh followed by a heavy sigh, Joshua’s mother tells me, “I am just teaching him what comes [into] my head, what I think is right.”

I have come to notice that she laughs nervously and lets out a deep sigh whenever she is nervous or feels overwhelmed. She performs this ritual again during my tour of Joshua’s room. She opens his closet and reveals the learning charts she has made to keep him stimulated while at home. One, on the right-hand door of the closet, is a colour chart that helps Joshua remember colours. According to his mother, “Joshua’s memory span is very short.” She has cut square name tags from yellow paper and stuck one under each matching button. The coat buttons are of varying colours and sizes. They each have a thick outer rim and four holes neatly poked in the middle. 

On the left-hand door of the closet is a hot-pink A3 poster, untidily created using two A4 pages. Written on one side of this makeshift poster are all the days of the week. Stuck onto the opposite side of the poster are photos of different activities that correspond with Joshua’s weekly schedule. Next to Monday is a photo of children in school uniform sitting in a classroom, writing. Tuesdays are for dance class and Fridays are for sports. Sunday has a picture of a cross on a hill, which symbolises church. These visual charts, according to Kelly, help Joshua remember things better. They are also in line with the activities which mediumfunctioning children such as Joshua, with intellectual disabilities, do at school

SEN education unravels amid the chaos

Costa, the director of inclusion and special schools in Gauteng, notes that when children returned to school after the extended school closures, teachers noticed clear signs of regression in their academic capability. She says schools “had to start again with the whole process of reintegration into the school, adding that “everything we would usually do for the first-time entrants, [schools] had to do with all the children. 

Nikki Preston, educational psychologist at the Morningside Therapy Centre and the Talk Shop School, tells Wits Vuvuzela that time away from school is bound to lead to regression in certain skills. She says this is because a lot of learning is facilitated through social interaction in classrooms and on the playground. “We have seen a regression in speech development and sensory development,” she says.  

Joshua’s mother further complains that her son’s school work lacks logical progression. She says the levels of difficulty between one work pack and the next one make no sense to her, and her confusion often frustrates Joshua.

“there are no textbooks, no resources, no guidelines [for teachers] at SEN schools.”

A lecturer at the Wits School of Education, Dr Tanya Bekker, notes that covid-19 has brought the SEN curriculum’s inadequacy into sharp focus. She says before the pandemic the gaps in the curriculum were not as “inyourface”, because teachers found ways to compensate for them. She adds that teachers must individualise the work to cater for each child’s capabilities, and it is impossible to fully transfer that into remote learning resources. 

Kraucamp concedes Bekker’s point. She says her school had to develop its own curriculum to fill in the gaps left by the governmentprescribed Differentiated Curriculum and Assessment Policy (CAPS). The Differentiated CAPS is an adapted version of the CAPS curriculum taught at mainstream schools.  

Bothered either by the rising heatwave in Johannesburg or the education departments neglect of special education schools, Kraucamp  brushes her fringe out of her face. After a long pause, she says that in addition to having an inconsistent curriculum, “there are no textbooks, no resources, no guidelines [for teachers] at SEN schools.” The principal adds that even before the pandemic teachers had to improvise and source their own learning materials. “Sometimes we get ideas on Pinterest [and] we use it in the classrooms.” 

Kraucamp goes on to say that lockdown learning really challenged her teachers who were parents themselves. Because teachers must prepare lessons for children on numerous platforms, “lockdown learning is harder work than teaching with a classroom” and, she says, teachers must often rope in family members to help with other home responsibilities.  

The catch-up game

To make up for lost academic time for those who have returned to schools, SEN schools, much like mainstream ones, have been instructed by the Basic Education Department to “trim the fluff” in the curriculum. South African SEN schools are now focusing on core subjects such as numeracy, literacy communication and life orientation. 

Costa notes that parents should not worry about their children losing their placement at schools. She says all children in SEN schools will progress to their next level of school next year, and whatever content is not covered in 2020 will be incorporated into the 2021 academic year.  “The idea is [that] no child is going to fail, she says, and the sector aims to recover from the impact of the pandemic by 2022.  

The future of children like Joshua, who have severe health challenges, hangs in the balance as there is no certainty when they will return to school. The uncertainty is even greater now, as the possibility of a second wave of coronavirus cases looms. 

There is no telling when Joshua will return to school, or if he ever will return. Unless the world’s scientists find a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, Joshua will remain confined to the environment of his home. He will live his life guarded by the high walls of his yard, with his helper as his teacher and his mother as his keeper. 

Joshua’s mother is adamant that she has no intention to send Joshua back to school for as long as covid-19 remains a threat to his life. If necessary, she says, she does not mind if Joshua loses his place at school. “I don’t mind if I have to lose his position during this time. I can rather lose it, but a life I cannot get back.” 

With most learners back in the classroom, both children and teachers are forced to adapt to the covid-19 rules. Photo: Akhona Matshoba.


Fight or flight for foreign nationals

The closure of borders and implementation of lockdown regulations to combat covid-19 in South Africa have had consequences for the wellbeing of foreign nationals, many of whom wrestled with the separation of their families and uncertainty over their migration status.


During level 2 -5 lockdown, Home Affairs offices across South Africa only operated for limited services, making it difficult for foreign nationals to apply for the necessary documentation to remain in the country. Photo: Zinhle Belle


A suitcase packed for England seven months previously obstructs the walkway as it occupies two thirds of the entrance to the Umeala household.  

Its owner, Chioma Umeala (23), has no intention of unpacking her baggage. Her family do not question when she will remove it, despite it causing mild chest congestion, as it packs dust.  

What you can still smell when you approach it, is the cologne of her father, who had helped her carry the bag down the stairs.  

A father’s final send-off, disrupted by the travel ban 

Unlike other students, Umeala’s decision to suspend her academic year abroad was not influenced by the outbreak of covid-19, but induced by her father’s deteriorating health.  

Samuel ‘Sonny’ Umeala (61), a Nigerianborn architect who had lived in South Africa for more than 25 years, lost his battle with an illness on Father’s Day, June 21, in his home in Johannesburg during levelthree lockdown.

Like many, the spread of covid-19 had scared Baba Umeala. Thus, his avoidance of a hospital to evade contracting the virus proved as deadly, as he did not receive due treatment for the illness he was fighting.  

The father’s day present anticipated for Baba Umeala has been placed next to a portrait of his family as a tribute to him after his death on June 21. Photo: Zinhle Belle.

For his last Father’s Day, his four girls and last-born son created collages and cards to honour him. Tragedy apprehended their family in the early hours of Sunday morning, however, as condolence messages poured in for the loss of their father. 

The reality the Umealas now faced included the logistical weight of planning a funeral under lockdown, which could accommodate their transnational identity.  

A home usually filled with the posture of a father guiding his family, transitioned overnight into a battlefield where two nationalities would butt heads for the legitimacy of funeral practices.  

In Nigerian culture, a person is meant to be buried in the land where they originated. As a result, his family in Nigeria expected his body to be sent home, for them to carry out the related customs.  

Chioma Umeala explains that burial in Nigeria can take up to six months to plan, as it is described as “the biggest event of a person’s life. 

Putting pressure on their father’s funeral was the policy of procedures for burial under lockdown, which stated that a mortuary may not keep a body for longer than 10 days from the date of death.  

Another hurdle they faced during levelthree lockdown was the travel ban, which had only been relaxed for the mild commencement of interprovincial travel for business purposes. 

Funeral arrangements were impossible to deploy not only due to the limited travel methods, but also by the inflated price of flights caused by the pandemic’s meltdown of the economy.  

This meant Baba Umeala’s Nigerian family were not able to come to South Africa to bury their relative.  

The family were burdened not only with the emotional trauma of this significant loss, but also the moral considerations of the possible customary consequences for not carrying out certain traditions accordingly. Umeala said, “With my father, knowing his culture, he knew that Nigeria is where he would have ended up.”  

The situation resulted imajor conflict and anger between the two sides of the family as the borders seemed to become a physical barrier that solidified their detachment.   

“This was the hardest part of burying my father, as we knew we had an obligation to send him back, but as a family who grew up in South Africa, we could only carry out the customs we were familiar with, that would give us the best closure,” said Umeala.   

Three months after his death, the ban has now been lifted, which has triggered disagreement and resentment as his Nigerian family seek the same closure afforded his immediate family.  

Similar circumstances followed for foreign nationals who saw themselves experiencing family displacement caused by the travel ban. 

The separation of families across borders

Alouise Matekenya (51) sits in an empty office, still set with work-from-home regulations. He positions himself at his desk, eyes glued to a calendar indicating the arrival of October, which to him can only represent the seventh month of the lockdown. What occupies his mind is when he will be reunited with his wife and children, who he has not seen since December 2019.  

Many foreign nationals like him, with employment in South Africa, faced insecurity of their mobility as movement across borders was restricted. Regulations such as the travel ban were initiated from March 18, in preparation for the lockdown strategy known as the National State of Disaster Management Act.  

Separated by only a border, the wife of AlouiseMaMatekenya, remained in Zimbabwe, where she ran their business. The two parents used their phones to regularly negotiate their parenting plan, as she took guard of their twin boys, who attend school in Zimbabwe.  

During this period, Matekenya navigated involuntary single parenthood in South Africa as he became the primary caregiver for his three other children, who remained with him.   

It was very difficult to manage the kids on my own. They were used to their mother coming periodically to check on them as well. Making the kids stay in the house was the most difficult thing to do,’’ said Matekenya.  

Outside of the emotional and socio-economic deprivation caused by the lockdown, Matekenya expressed how the risk of poor health was a lingering thought during the pandemic.  

his association with the virus was set to its “worst possible outcome being death”
Like others, Matekenya experienced the dread of contracting the disease. During this week of leveltwo lockdown, infections in South Africa had reached a stark 650 000 cases, with deaths sitting at 15 500. After witnessing the decline of a colleague’s condition, it alarmed Matekenya to know that of the 495 deaths recorded that week, one was that of his colleague.  

From this point onwards, Matekenya said, his association with the virus was set to its “worst possible outcome being death. 

Without direct access to his wife for support, a petrified Matekenya described himself as “the most vulnerable member of the family this side, as he entered self-isolation.  

Due to the level of responsibility on his shoulders to care and provide for his family, he had to put on a brave face for his children, while attempting to suppress thoughts of what would happen without his presence, or inability to stand in good health.  

To him, his three children in South Africa, all under the age of 12bore the risk of vulnerability, if left alone in an environment where separation for health and safety were the government’s first priority. 

Throughout the global lockdown, countries have offered repatriation flights to people who wish to return to their country. To some people, this gesture served as an outlet to reunite families. However, such flights to South Africa were exclusive to citizens and those with residency, thus limiting the ability of those with working or tourist visas to return to the country.  

The implementation of the travel ban on March 18, as one of the first lockdown policies in South Africa restricted non-citizen and residential travel into and out of the country as a means to control the spread of covid-19. Photo: Zinhle Belle.


During the scramble of countries closing their borders to manage the spread of the novel virus, many expatriates had to make the decision of remaining in the area they were in or returning home.

In South Africa, decisions for migrants to remain were factored on “considering South Africa as their home, others felt the covid-19 pandemic was global and could be contracted anywhere, while some indicated that they feared they’d be unable to re-enter South Africa,” according to the Social impact of COVID-19” research conducted by Stats SA on July 27.   

Speaking to the Cape Argus newspaper, the dean of social science at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Vivian Besem Ojong said, “The primary response [by the government] is to usually focus on its citizens, and when the borders closed governments mainly put focus on their own residents.”   

The ramifications of lockdown policies, aimed at guarding the wellbeing of citizens, create a window of vulnerability for foreign nationals as they are not identified as beneficiaries of that protection. Consequently, they must submit to policies that do not safeguard their welfare.  

Yet in instances where one returned home, like MaMatekenya, the only option was to sit steadily in Zimbabwe for months, without clarity on when she would be reunited with her family. What was initially estimated as a 21-day lockdown in South Africa has extended past seven months, with no clear end point.  

“Like any other person, she felt cut off from the physical family union for a very long time. Naturally, her freedom of movement to see family was prohibited,” said Matekenya.  

With the financial instability caused by the pandemic, Matekenya said the earliest arrangement for his wife to visit, with the reopening of borders, has been made for November 2020 – a year after their separation.   

Not only did lockdown policy affect movement, but it also had an impact on the renewal of visas and residency applications, which foreign nationals rely on to maintain legitimacy in South Africa.  

The limited services offered by home affairs caused uncertainty for foreign nationals

Connor Sim (24), a Scottish citizen working as a private wealth banker in Cape Town, returned to Scotland in February 2020, due to a change of employment in South Africa that required a visa renewal.  

In his statement on “Measures to combat the covid-19 epidemic” on March 15, President Ramaphosa announced a travel ban on foreign nationals from high-risk countries, effective from March 18. On that list was the United Kingdom.  

As a result, Sim was prevented from returning to South Africa. Such measures by the government did not make exceptions for foreign nationals who had affairs in the country.  

When the lockdown came into operation on March 23, the Department of Home Affairs announced it would be offering limited essential services, restricted to the issuing of “temporary IDs, birth and death certificates.  

This caused distress for foreign nationals who remained in the country past the expiry date of their permits or visas, as they risk being labelled as “undesirable people.   

Section 30(1)(h) of the Immigration Act 13 of 2002, as amended by Act 13 of 2011, states the consequences of overstaying in South Africa as deportation and ban for a period of five years or more.  

Permit holders whose documents expired no earlier than February 2020 were granted validity until an amended date, which has been extended to January 31, 2021. 


Foreign Nationals with visas that expired during the South African lockdown are permitted to remain in the country until January 31, 2021, under the ‘extension of visa’ measures issued by the Department of Home Affairs. Photo: Zinhle Belle.

This grace afforded them bears the emotional stigma carried by undocumented foreign nationals as they often face discrimination from citizens and intimidation by the police. 

“The Bill of Rights was not suspended by the initiation of the Disaster Management Act, however, there was a lack of consideration on the means of survival for foreign nationals”
“South Africa’s Immigration and Refugee Act is inclusive and progressive but there is no political will to ensure that there is the equal implementation of the law,” said Sharon EkambaramHead of Refugee and Migrant Rights Programme at Lawyers for Human Rights, Johannesburg. 

“The Bill of Rights was not suspended by the initiation of the Disaster Management Act, however, there was a lack of consideration on the means of survival for foreign nationals,” said Ekambaram.  

With the closure of embassies, foreign nationals had limited avenues to enquire about the terms of their stay or requests for aid from South Africa. 

Sim described the preliminary period of lockdown as “walking through the unknown. As he fought to withhold adjusting to the possibility of relocating back to Scotland. This deliberation was caused by the growing uncertainty of when he would return to South Africa.  

Speaking on the lack of resources for foreign nationals to remain informed, Ekambaram said, “there was no effort for the government to share these messages on a community level.   

A clueless Sim, desperate for information on when travel would open, grew tired of typing variations of the same question, on his laptop, one of the few possessions, which he had not left in South Africa.  

His rigorous efforts were not met with the same urgency as President Ramaphosa would only give South Africa updates every three to four weeks. 

“Around June, July [three months into lockdown], the thoughts started creeping in, I struggled to visualise my future in South Africa and felt like I had little possibility of returning to South Africa,” said Sim. 

The upliftment of the international travel ban, in October, under lockdown level one permitted Sim to return to South Africa to resume his employment.  

However, the future of many other migrants in the country remains ambiguous as they camp outside an open Home Affairs department waiting for their visas to be processed. 

Although the initiation of lockdown level one has facilitated a form of normality with the relaxation of policies, for many foreign nationals a constant negotiation of their agency was the fight they endured for remaining in a foreign country during the lockdown.   

FEATURED IMAGE: The Alexandra Home Affairs office remains crowded since its resumption of full services at the beginning of level one lockdown on October 1, as people have been inquiring about the status of their documents. Photo: Zinhle Belle.